I can’t tell you how many times I hear this word per day. If I hear it for less than 10 times a day, I will call it a good day.
Mzungu stands for “foreigner” (wazungu is the plural form) in Swahili. In Tanzania, everyone – as young as any child who can talk or as old as those who have no teeth – calls a non-local mzungu.
There is no way out of this. On the streets vendors would yell “mzungu” to capture your attention. At any given place, you can hear people saying mzungu in between Swahili sentences. Children will always wave at you and yell “mzunguuuu!” at their cutest, sharpest voice. Eventually, you will have to accept this as part of your identity. You will begin to joke that you behave like a mzungu. Or you would ask the shop owner if he/she is selling the product at the “mzungu price” instead of the “rafiki (friend) price.” One day, I will buy that shirt that says, “I spot a mzungu.”
Well, obviously, I wasn’t used to this new labeling when I first arrived at Tanzania. To a degree, I considered it unwelcoming since these people are simply lumping all the foreigners into one group, disregarding all other aspects of that person, reducing him/her to just his/her skin color.
At the same time, I am puzzled because I want to know what connotations does this very word carry. I have always gotten the vibe that it is nothing positive. I have always felt that the term is related to those impolite tourists who request to be escorted and taken care of at all times. But at the same time, could it be just a “friendly” way of initiating conversation with us foreigners?
According to our local rafiki, he said that this very term has already turned into a joke of the town. It is so overused that clearly there is no one clear definition anymore.
The fact that there are so many wazungu roaming around the city and that wazungu have become one of the most important “customers”/”benefactors” of the city (at least the students at Arusha told me so) don’t exactly help with this stereotyping. Mzungu is automatically associated to money and opportunities, but also to “easy to be tricked/taken advantage of.” That’s why our Swahili teachers had taught us to say “We’re not wazungu, we are guests of Tanzania” on the first day of class.
Maybe building true relationships with the people here is the only way out. I am still amazed by how important Greetings are in Tanzania culture. That initiate exchange of greetings - asking each other how’s your day, how’s your family, how you are feeling - is the best way to open up a conversation and begin a relationship.
In the end, it is very reassuring when we hear a teacher or a local telling others/children “Don’t call them ‘wazungu’, they love you!”
so much for now, xoxo